Honestly. I Ask You.

The problem with the word conservative is that it leaves open the question of what it is you are conserving exactly. It can refer to Kremlin KGB types, Saudi Muslims, polygamous Mormons, and men like J. Gresham Machen. And a conservationist is someone who derives his ideological identity from wanting to conserve other stuff.

So different kinds of conservatives want to conserve different kinds of things. Big government conservatives want to conserve the victories of their fathers’ enemies. Small government conservatives want to conserve the memory of a kind of thinking that made its last public appearance during the adminstration of Grover Cleveland. So different kinds of conservatives want to conserve different things. They differ in the direct object.

But they can also differ in the adverb — how do you conserve things? One kind of conservative tries to do this woodenly. He doesn’t want anything to change, period, and so he insists that every candidate at presbytery take a vow to uphold the original Westminster, in exactly the form it came down from Allah in the original Arabic. But the mushy liberals are no better. They want candidates to appear at presbytery like they were guests on Ophrah. “Tell us what the Westminster Confession has meant to you in times of trouble.”

But strict subscription does not uphold the Westminster Confession. It is a flagrant denial of it. Synods and councils have erred, and do err, including this one, chump. Loose subscription is no help either. What good is a fence around the vegetable garden of truth that makes sure there are holes every ten feet big enough for the average erroneous rabbit? But there is an alternative to strict subscription, which necessarily elevates the Confession to the level of Scripture, and loose subscription, which lowers the Confession to the level of the 9th and 10th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

This alternative is called honest subscription. A confession is a form of doctrinal shorthand. I can communicate a great deal in a short space of time by saying that I hold to the Westminster Confession, with “the following exceptions.” The person taking the exceptions, and the presbyters hearing him, are dealing with the material honestly. If he says that he subscribes to the Confession, but that he doesn’t buy all “that Trinity stuff,” he is a heretic, but at least he is being an honest one. And when the presbytery rejects him, they are doing so because they know exactly where he is coming from. But if he says that he believes the Westminster is overly restrictive in its statement of what is required on the Lord’s Day (as I did when I subscribed to the Westminster Confession), they know that this exception does not strike at the innards of Calvinism. Indeed, many of them would agree that this actually strengthens sabbatarianism; it does not weaken it. But the key is to let the presbytery know that you agree with the whole thing, with the exception of “this, this, and that.”

Now when a man subscribes to the Confession and his beliefs are not in conformity with what the Westminster theologians intended when they adopted it, there are two possibilities. One is that he is a dishonest man, saying that he believes things he does not believe. This is the way of liberalism — the same liberalism, incidentally, that prides itself on openness, transparency, and honesty. This is confessional rot, and it is a character issue. It is dishonest subscription.

But there is a “conservative” way to do this also. The problem is in the adverb, as I pointed out earlier, and it is usually done through ignorance, not dishonest malice. But ignorance can get you as far away from the original intent of the Westminster Assembly as dishonesty can. If a man gets off the right road, and is barreling along in the wrong direction at 75 mph, his speed is not affected by whether the choice to get off the right road was deliberate or accidental. In either case, his car still has eight cylinders.

And this brings us to Steve Wilkins. Steve really believes that through a right use of the ordinance of baptism, the grace of that baptism is really exhibited and conferred on those who whom it properly belongs (Westminster 28.6). He subscribes to this portion of the Confession intelligently and honestly. To speak in theological categories, he agrees with it. His opponents say they subscribe to this, but they really do not, and they do not give any kind of reasonable explanation for how they can take these words. They don’t need to give an explanation because we, on the other side of this divide, would like to debate with them, not prosecute them.

So why the crisis then? Their problem is that if they don’t prosecute us, they will eventually have to debate, and they don’t have the answers that such a debate would require. They cannot answer the simple confessional questions that would be put to them in a debate. “Dr. Waters, do you believe that in salvation a worthy receiver, one who is such by virtue of the evangelical faith given to him by God, is receiving the salvific grace of his baptism? Or do you take an exception to 28.6?”

And this is the conclusion of the matter. Honest subscription is a moral necessity, one that requires diligent, hard work. Of course. liberals need to learn how to be honest with their own hearts, and with us. But there are many “conservatives” who need to learn how to be honest with the text. There is a difference between honest subscription to an oral tradition of American revivalism and honest subscription to the Westminster Confession. And as recent events have indicated, this is not a minor difference.

For He Is Good

One of the taunts that was brought against our Lord during His earthly ministry was that He ate with sinners. If you look around the room, and if you consider your own heart, you will observe that He is still doing this. He still eats with sinners. But as He does this, He does not become like we are—rather, we become like Him.

This is why Paul could write to the Roman church, confident, as he put it, that they were filled with goodness. They were not filled with a goodness of their own. But nevertheless, they were filled with goodness. An ordinary congregation of forgiven sinners, just like you, was declared by the apostle to be filled with goodness. And so are you. You are filled with goodness. Look around the room—you see other saints who are filled with that same goodness, the goodness of the grace of God. It has come to rest upon us, and He has sent His Spirit to indwell us. Because Jesus is good—no one being good except God alone—all those who have gathered at His table in truth are also good. This is the goodness of grace, but it does not keep it from being goodness.

The food is good. The fellowship is good. The company is good. The results are good. The aroma is good. So as we partake, as we give thanks, offer your praises to the Lord, for He is good.

The Signature of God

The Scriptures teach us in countless places that we are to be unsurprised when God’s faithful ones come under attack. When they tragically come under attack from fellow Christians, the charge against them is (obviously) not that they have been faithful, but rather unfaithful. This also should be no surprise.

Jesus was executed for blasphemy, but the real reason was envy. Paul was charged with corrupting the ancient traditions, but the real reason was his love for God’s purpose for the Gentiles. Peter and John were flogged for filling Jerusalem with their doctrine, but the real reason was that their doctrine was the aroma of life in the midst of a stench of death.

In our church, we have been regularly asking God to bring reformation to His church today, a church in desperate need of it. God is hearing our prayers, He is answering them, and we are greatly blessed. For His covenantal faithfulness, He is greatly to be praised. But the opposition to reformation is growing, both nationally and locally. As that opposition to reformation becomes more and more panicked, it is the task of each one of you to possess your souls in patience. Receive what our sovereign God brings to us in faith, calmness, serenity, and with that particular kind of boldness that comes from a clean conscience before God.

Nothing has been derailed. Nothing has been thwarted. Our God is in heaven, and He does whatever He pleases. The exhortation is to trust God, and to rest in Him. This attitude of peace, serenity, calmness, and willingness to bless those who curse is the signature of God at the bottom of every letter that He writes. We are grateful to God beyond words that you in this congregation are such a letter. Continue in it, and walk by faith.

God”s Own Metaphor

“Puritan poets . . . knew that part of their work in this world was to wean their affections from the unmixed love of it. But they also knew that this world was God’s metaphor for His communicable glories and that another part of their duty was to see and utter that metaphor, to use the figural value of this world to turn their attentions and affections to the next” (Daly, p. 81).

Flat On Purpose

“Whereas modern artists assume that the artist, like all human beings, is a unified personality, postmodernists work from the assumption that self-identity is itself an illusion. Modernists, believing the artist is a unique individual, strive for a unique style. Postmodernists work with a collage of different and often recycled and mass-produced styles. Modernists are ‘deep,’ concerned with inner realities and complex truths. Postmodernists are ‘flat,’ obsessed with surfaces and superficial appearances” (Gene Edward Veith, Postmodern Times, p. 95).

Where is the Olive Tree?

“And this is why we remember the words of Irenaeus who said, and said well, that ‘where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church.’ Where is the olive tree? The answer of Scripture is plain: Where there are olives” (Mother Kirk, p. 34).

The Sanctimonious Veil of Myth

“Why? Because Job protests his innocence to the end. If his ‘friends’ had succeeded in reducing him to silence, the persecutors’ belief in the scapegoat’s guilt would have been unanimous. This belief would have prevailed so totally that every future account of the affair would have been given by people sharing it. We would have only one perspective, that of the friends. In other words, we would have a myth. That is all a myth is — an absolute faith in the victim’s total power of evil that liberates the persecutors from reciprocal recriminations . . . The myth is Job’s story told entirely by the persecutors. The Dialogues of Job are an Oedipus story in which the victim refuses to add his voice to those of his persecutors. Oedipus is a successful scapegoat, because he is never recognized as such. Job is a failed scapegoat. He derails the mythology that is meant to envelop him . . .” (Girard, Job, pp. 34-35).

To Get the Chimps Jumping?

When accusations are brought against anyone, it is crucial for all potential participants, witnesses, or observers to think of the matter biblically. This is because it is perilously easy to fall into that species of do-goodism that wants to uproot the tares, but that kind of do-goodism is at root diabolical.

This is true of accusations of private wrong-doing (e.g. embezzlement) and accusations of public heresy. I have already shown that the two need to be handled differently, according to Scripture. The first should be handled by the elders of the people, who conduct a careful investigation (Dt. 19). The second, as a public matter, should be handled as a public matter in public view. Jesus said to ask the people what He taught. But even with this difference acknowledged, there is still a common element in both situations that everyone should be aware of.

First, we need to see that — from Genesis to Revelation — the godly prosecutor has a paucity of role models. The overall theme of the Scripture is that the true conservatives are the falsely accused; it is one of the great ironies of our day that ostensible conservatives want to earn their gunslinging stripes by accusing. Think of it: Abel accused by Cain, Joseph accused by his brothers and by Potipher’s wife, David accused by Saul, Jeremiah accused by the court prophets, and of course, the Lord Jesus accused by the Sanhedrin. Where in Scripture is the theme of the zealous accuser who wants to root out some troublemaker? There are some — Joshua with Achan, or Josiah and the idolators of Israel. But the words Satan and devil (with their deep connotations of adversarial accusation) are attached where they are for a reason.

This is no argument against church government, or lawful church discipline. It is merely a cautionary note — those who have been entrusted with authority in the church need to take as their top priority an ecclesiastical version of the Hippocratic oath — “first, do no harm.” Those who bring charges lawfully need to do so with fear and trembling, and with a profound awareness of how often charges have been brought in the course of Scripture, and in the history of the Church, by those who thought they were serving God.

The great Puritan Thomas Watson said that it is better to be wronged than to do wrong. It is not a sin to be wronged. Those who are in a position to do wrong (with authority) need to make a point of going the extra mile to put this understanding into practice. The Lord Jesus said that all manner of blasphemy against Him would be forgiven (Matt. 12:31-32), but that the sin against the Holy Spirit would not be. In my mind this means that those who in their calling and vocation are representing the Lord Jesus (ministers) ought to be like the Lord in this. This is why in our practice we have disciplined those who have abandoned their spouses, for example, but have been very slow to discipline those who rail against us. God sees, and He will sort that kind of thing out.

There are some who are distressed on our behalf over the lies that are being told about us. There are web sites out there dedicated to little else. If lies about what we have been doing and saying were liquid, these sites would be overflowing and standing in the slop. But this is just part of the cost of doing business. Jesus said to expect it, to rejoice when it happened, and I believe the tenor of Scripture requires those in spiritual authority to take care that they not react in a manner that makes the accusations retroactively true. False accusations of tyranny could provoke a man into tyranny.

The last thing in the world that elders and pastors should want is the perception that they are using the apparatus of justice to sandbag their own position. Church discipline should be obviously the kind of thing that has the health of the whole body in mind. Now because of the overarching theme of the Bible, and because of the great moral force of Christ’s example on the cross, this explains why, in our contemporary disputes, everyone needs to be the accused. This is where playing the victim comes from. The victims of course want to be the victims, which is their right. There are true victims. But prosecutors, persecutors, slanderers, lie-mongers, accusers, and all their cousins also need to be the victim. This explains why, if someone lies about me, and I laugh at it, in their minds I have committed a mortal offense against public decency. My sympathies go out to these people — it is really hard to be the accuser and the victim at the same time.

Now the occasion for writing all this is the examination of Steve Wilkins that is currently underway in the PCA. I have said, and I continue to say, that what is most necessary here is for as many people as possible to acquaint themselves with what Steve has been teaching. If they read through some stuff a couple years ago, they should refresh themselves on it. They should settle in their own minds whether Steve, when he says that he affirms the Westminster doctrine of election, is affirming the Westminster doctrine of election. Having done this, they should pray that the Louisiana Presbytery will make a godly and wise decision, and then, that the Standing Judicial Commission will make a godly and wise decision in letting that decision stand.

Some might object that I am trying to queer the results here, trying to gather a mob outside the courthouse, trying to run my stick across the bars to get the chimps jumping. Not at all. As Paul said to Agrippa, these things were not done in a corner. I was at the notorious Auburn Avenue conferences. Steve is a friend, and I know what he teaches. I know what I believe and teach, and I know how ignorant and irresponsible people have misrepresented those beliefs and teachings. The people bringing their accusations against Steve are guilty of the same kind of misunderstandings and misrepresentations. I know what the truth in this situation is, and I know this on the basis of information that is publicly available. I am not reporting here from “inside.” This is all on the table.

Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church sought permission from the Lousiana Presbytery to post Steve’s written answers, along with the audio. They received that permission. The fact that the information is public is not controversial; it is out there with everyone’s blessing. Reading through this material, or listening to the audio, is not to side with Steve or his accusers. It is to acquaint yourself with what is going on, and when you do this, you are in a position to do so as a friend of justice.